How to Play Magic: The Gathering Part 7: Formats

If you are new to Magic: The Gathering, you have probably heard terms like standard, modern, limited, commander, or constructed. What do these words mean? These all refer to different formats for playing Magic. Since MTG has been around for over 25 years now, the game has changed a lot since it was first introduced and in those early days, the designers didn’t have any guidelines when it came to the power level of cards so older cards are typically far more powerful than almost everything Wizards of the Coast comes up with today. To balance things out, Wizards introduced banned and restricted lists and different formats. Currently, Wizards officially recognizes about 9 different formats which I will go over in this post.

Before we begin, there are some classifications to go over.

Sealed/Limited: This refers to building a deck from a limited pool of cards or playing with a Magic product right out of the box, as is.

Constructed: This refers to a format that allows you to build your own deck, however you want, from several sets of cards. You are, however, restricted to only 4 copies of a single card.

Singleton: This means that all cards in your deck are limited to only 1 copy.

Rotating: This means that the cards in this format rotate out to make room for new cards.

Eternal/Non-rotating: This means that the cards in this format do not rotate out.

With that out of the way, let’s begin.

Draft & Pre-release Events

Draft refers to a format where participants (typically a pod of 4-8 players) are given 3 fifteen-card booster packs to pull cards from. When the draft begins, each player opens 1 pack (removing the token and basic land unless the land is foil), picks 1 card that they want, and then passes the remaining cards around the table where the next person will pick a card out of those remaining. This process continues until all packs have been opened. Players then use the cards from their respective pulls to build a deck that is a minimum of 40 cards. Once the decks have been built, the players face each other in a tournament style gauntlet. Basic lands are typically provided in an official setting like a game store for Friday night magic.

Similar to draft is the pre-release event. Instead of 3 booster packs, players receive a small box containing 6 packs and a promo card. Players open all of their packs at the same time and use cards from all 6 packs to build a 40-card minimum deck. There is no passing cards in this format. In fact, trading cards at all during limited events is prohibited.


Standard is a constructed, rotating format. To play standard, decks need to consist of at least 60 cards that are from the current sets in standard (if a card currently in standard has been printed in the past, you may use older copies of that card if you desire). You may also have a 15-card sideboard that you can use to swap out some cards in your deck between games. In an official standard event, match-ups are best 2 out of 3. Between the games, players may change out cards that were not effective against their opponent for more effective cards, however, once the match-up is over, both decks must return to their original configuration. Historically, cards getting banned in standard is a rare occurrence, but it does happen from time to time.


Arguably, Magic’s most popular format is modern, formerly known as extended. Modern is an eternal, constructed format. While it does have a broad pool of cards, you can only use cards that have been printed into sets that have been standard legal starting in 2003 with 8th edition and Mirrodin. Even then, there is a banned list for modern. As far as game play and decks go, it’s just a more powerful standard. A much more powerful standard.

Legacy & Vintage

Legacy and Vintage are very similar formats. They are both eternal and constructed formats. The only difference is that legacy has a banned list while vintage has a restricted list. While a banned list eliminates the use of particular cards entirely, a restricted list allows the card to be used, but only a single copy of it. It should also be noted that most of the cards on legacy’s banned list are also on the restricted list in vintage. Legacy and Vintage allow nearly all cards ever printed to be played, from Alpha, Beta, Unlimited, and Revised to the sets currently in standard. Decks are constructed just like in standard and modern, 60-card deck, 15-card sideboard, etc.

Keep in mind, these formats are not cheap due to the reserved list. The reserved list is a list of cards that Wizards of the Coast has promised to never print again. Since Magic is a collectable card game, collectors invest their money into it, no problem there. The problem is reprints. Reprints of expensive cards drives down the value of those cards. For example, a card someone paid $500 for gets reprinted and now that copy is only worth a portion of its original value so part of the purpose of the reserved list is protecting the value of those older cards. It’s a controversial topic in the MTG community, but you can’t talk about legacy and vintage without bringing it up because some of the cards on that list are format staples.

Commander & Brawl

Now its time to really shake things up with Commander. Also known as Elderdragon Highlander (EDH), decks contain 99 cards with one additional card set apart to serve as the deck’s commander. No sideboard. The deck’s commander must be a legendary creature. There are also a handful of planeswalkers that can serve as commanders as well. The cards in the deck must match the color identity of the commander, and a card’s color identity is made up of all the mana symbols on the card, not just the card’s casting cost. To illustrate this, If I were to use Alesha, Who Smiles at Death as my commander I can use cards that are colorless (like artifacts), red, white, black, boros (red and white), rakdos (red and black), orzhov (white and black), or mardu (red and white and black). There is also a command zone where your commander resides. You can cast your commander at anytime on your turn and when your commander changes zones for any reason, you have the option to put it back into the command zone instead. However, if you cast your commander again it will cost 2 extra generic mana for each casting after the first. This is called the command zone tax. That’s not the only thing that sets commander apart from other formats. It’s also a singleton format, which means the cards in your deck are limited to 1 copy except for basic lands. Players also start the game with 40 life instead of the usual 20 and it takes 15 poison counters instead of 10 to take out your opponent with infect. There is also an added win condition of commander damage. If a player receives 21 cumulative combat damage from a single commander, that player loses the game. Typically, games of commander include 4 players. It’s also an eternal format that allows any white or black border card to be played. For the format’s size, it has a relatively small banned list. Cards that may be terrible in other formats are highly likely to see play in commander because decks are so versatile and unique.

Brawl is similar to commander. It is the newest format on this list and was introduced in 2018 with the release of the Dominaria expansion block. Simply, it uses a 59-card deck, 1 legendary creature or planeswalker set aside as the commander, no sideboard, singleton, and the only legal cards are those currently in standard. If there are only 2 players, the game starts at 25 life. If there are 3 or more, the game starts at 30 life.

Two-Headed Giant

Its time for a team battle. Games of two-headed giant can also fall under modern, standard or any other previously mentioned format. A team of two players join together to take on another team of two players. Both players on a team take their turns at the same time and move through the phases in unison. Instead of each player having their own life total, both players share a life total. If one player would lose the game, both team members are eliminated. In the attack step, either opposing player can be attacked and there is no blocking for a teammate. Mana sources are also separate, meaning players cannot use their teammate’s mana. Targeting is also different in a game of two-headed giant. Your teammate is also a player and will be affected by spells that effect every player. Decks are still made up of 60 cards, but since this format is usually best of 1 there is no sideboard and teammates can only have 4 copies of a card between the two decks.

The formats mentioned in this post are the only ones officially recognized by Wizards of the Coast at this time, but there are many more unofficial formats which I will go over later. New formats also come out every year or so and I expect more formats will be added to this list and once we have more, I’ll make a new post about those formats. To view the banned list for any of these formats go to, the official MTG website.

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